To mark International Women’s Day, Marc Luther Thomas recognises some of the most influential women we have seen throughout the history of sport…
When we think of female sports stars, Serena Williams is likely to be at the forefront of all our minds, followed by her sister Venus. There are many more outside the world of tennis, including Jessica Ennis-Hill, Nicola Adams, Megan Rapinoe, Simone Giles and golf’s Brooke Henderson.
They’re all recent stars of global sports but what about historical legends who have broken down boundaries? Women who paved the way for future generations and the stars of today.
It’s only right on International Women’s Day that we pay homage to these incredible individuals.
Kathrine Switzer became a symbol of female empowerment following her appearance at the Boston Marathon in 1967. At the time, women were not allowed to run more than 1,500 metres in sanctioned races. They weren’t prevented from running – but were only able to join from the sidelines and were not given a number.
For the race in ’67, Switzer’s application slipped through the net which allowed her to take part wearing the number 261. Four miles into the race, she was attacked by race director Jock Semple, with the images of the incident making headline news around the world. Switzer’s then boyfriend, Tom Miller, intervened and she went on to complete the marathon in four hours and 20 minutes.
Switzer became an advocate for women’s rights, and women were officially able to compete in the marathon five years later. She also played a key part in the successful campaign to include the women’s marathon in the 1984 Olympics. She completed the Boston marathon again in 2017 to mark 50 years since that landmark event, and her 261 number has since been retired by the organisers.
Billie Jean King
Another pioneer for gender equality in sport is Billie Jean King. An immensely successful sportswoman in her own right, King won 39 tennis Grand Slam titles – 12 in singles, 16 women’s doubles titles as well as 11 in mixed doubles.
In 1973, King defeated Bobby Riggs in an exhibition match dubbed the ‘Battle of the Sexes’. A former Grand Slam champion himself, Riggs became a self-described ‘hustler’ by playing in promotional challenge matches. He was vocal in his belief that the women’s game was vastly inferior to the men’s and claimed that, even at his age of 55 at the time, he could beat any of the current top female players.
After initially declining the opportunity to play him, King accepted a lucrative offer to challenge him in a winner-takes-all match worth $100,000 in prize money. King won the match in three sets, with an estimated worldwide audience of around 90 million people. In the wake of the match, King said: “To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me – the thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”
Marta Vieira da Silva, commonly known as Marta, is widely regarded as one of the best footballers the women’s game has ever seen. She has done a great deal to change attitudes towards women’s football in her native Brazil, where it was against the law for women to take part in the sport until 1975.
As a result of the lack of interest and development in the women’s game, there was no league system in Brazil when Marta began her career in the early 2000s. She made her name in Sweden, having joined Umea IK where she won four consecutive league titles, as well as winning the UEFA women’s cup in her first season at the club. She became the first Brazilian woman to play professionally in Europe, becoming the best-paid player in the Swedish league.
Her exploits in the 2007 World Cup semi-final victory over champions USA, which was described as ‘perhaps the most stunning performance in a women’s World Cup game ever.’ Now plying her trade for Orlando Pride USA, Marta has six FIFA World Player of the Year awards to her name, as well as being the women’s World Cup record goalscorer. A symbol of acceptance of the sport in her home country, she now has a footprint engraved outside the Maracanã, in company with some male greats of the game such as Pelé, Garrincha, Romário and Ronaldo.
Recognised as the first female athlete to become a global sports celebrity, Suzanne Lenglen took the tennis world by storm in the early 20th century.
Lenglen was a child prodigy – winning her first major title at the 1914 World Hard Court Championships at the age of just 15. After competitive tennis was halted by the first World War, Lenglen made her Wimbledon debut in 1919, going on to win the tournament after a classic final against Dorothea Lambert Chambers, a British seven-time winner of the tournament. She won the match 10-8, 4-6, 9-7 – making it the second-longest in history, in front of an 8,000-strong crowd that included King George V and Queen Mary.
She made a name for herself with her exuberant playing style and persona. Unlike most of the other women on the tennis circuit, she served overhand and, also unlike many of her fellow competitors, it wasn’t uncommon for her to launch her racket upon missing a shot. In that 1919 final, she also turned heads with a one-piece cotton dress which was cut above the calf and revealed her forearms – something almost unheard of for female competitors of that era.
Lenglen dominated much of the following decade, having been ranked number one in the world from the inception of official rankings in 1921 until 1926, going on to win eight Grand Slam singles titles – 21 in total – along with 10 World Championship titles. Not content with the money this had earned her, however, she gave up her amateur status and became the first leading amateur to become professional. This concluded a 179-match winning streak, having only suffered one loss throughout her post-war career.